World Wildlife Fund’s National Living Planet Index Report

In Sept 2017, WWF released a comprehensive study of wildlife populations in Canada from 1970 to 2014. The study, which was conducted in collaboration with the London Zoological Society, looked at 903 animals in over 3,600 populations, and is the most comprehensive of its kind ever done in Canada. Sadly, the results showed that 50% of our wildlife are in “serious and significant” decline, with the average rate of decline being a whopping 83%.

The Good: Not all the news was bad. As a whole, Canada has done better than many countries, partly due to our large size and relatively sparse population. Some species did not decline, and others actually increased. Some of the increases are the result of conservation efforts and pollution control, the most well-known example being the increase of raptor populations since the ban of DDT. However, increasing numbers were most often seen in animal species that are able to adapt to human-made changes, such as raccoons and the larger breeds of Canada Geese.

The Bad: The study showed that Canada’s mammals have decreased by 41%, fish by 20%, reptiles and amphibians by 34%. While some bird populations have increased, grassland birds have declined by 70%, aerial insectivores, such as swallows, by 51%, and shorebirds by 43%. Species most vulnerable are those that are long-lived, slow to reproduce, rely on limited or single food sources, and live in specialized or fragile habitat (including such iconic species as Orcas and Polar bears).

Habitat loss, which is directly related to human activity, is the biggest threat: deforestation, urbanization, industrial development, and agriculture. Other major factors in wildlife decline include: Climate change and the resulting warming and increasing acidity of the oceans, pollution, such as sewage, agricultural run-off, and plastic wastes, the introduction of invasive species (such as broom and bullfrogs on Pender), and overexploitation (especially overfishing). And these factors have a cumulative effect. For example, Chinook Salmon numbers have crashed due to overfishing and industrial development such as hydroelectric dams, and the orcas that depend on them for survival are also threatened by pollution, including noise pollution, and increased shipping in their habitat.

The Ugly: Surprisingly—and tragically—since the Species at Risk Act (SARA)was introduced by the federal government in 2002, species under its protection have declined at a faster rate than they did before the act was in place. The WWF study has revealed huge deficiencies in SARA, and the government’s implementation of the Act, including:

  • Delays in getting species listed onto SARA (often many years) after being identified as species at risk by the committee mandated by the Act.
  • Failure to meet recovery plan timelines stated in the Act.
  • Failure to identify and protect critical habitat for species at risk.
  • Inadequate funding for recovery projects.
  • Deferring to economic interests rather than scientific data in making decisions.
  • Relying on government “discretion” in following laws mandated by the Act.

The inadequacy of SARA is illustrated in the example of the St. Lawrence Beluga Whales, which were recognized as being in serious trouble in the 1970’s, but were not listed as “At Risk” by SARA until 2005, and critical habitat protection was not put into place until 2016. Also, environmental organizations such as Ecojustice have had to initiate lawsuits in an attempt to force the federal government to obey the Species at Risk Act and implement protection and recovery plans critically endangered species such as the Greater Sage Grouse and Killer Whales.